Climate breakdown - or social justice

Unsustainable development practices make people more vulnerable to disasters. This is particularly true for growing urban populations who are often faced with poorly planned, badly built or informal housing and infrastructure. Currently, there are about 1 billion people living in mega slums without access to basic services and often on high-risk areas, as illustrated in Villa El Salvador, in Lima, Peru.

A Global Green New Deal needs to nurture a twenty-first century commons in place of an economy based on privatising humanity’s basic needs.

There is a deep connection between climate and wellbeing - for one, climate change increases the likelihood and severity of future pandemics

Climate breakdown threatens our right to have a clean and safe environment in which to live.

Increasingly strong storms, floods and wildfires cause loss of life and livelihood, and existing mechanisms to deal with this heightened risk are not only insufficient, but exclusionary.

Often, marginalised communities will not have been consulted in the design of early warning systems and evacuation systems, causing particular risks to those who may need enhanced support.

This series of articles has been published in partnership with Dalia Gebrial and Harpreet Kaur Paul and the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in London. It first appeared in a collection titled Perspectives on a Global Green New Deal.


The rights to live in dignity, with suitable access to housing, safe energy, a clean and safe environment, sustenance, and physical and mental health have been under threat for a long time.

They have their roots in colonialism, which created a profound global cultural shift in how humans relate to nature and one another.

It imposed a view that if we weren’t always dominating and exploiting natural resources and other people, we weren’t being ‘productive.’

This directly conflicts with the beliefs of many indigenous peoples, for whom the relationship between people and nature is one of interdependence and stewardship, rather than domination and extraction.

The systematic destruction of such principles has left swathes of the global population without adequate resources to prioritise the health and well-being of themselves, their family and community - meanwhile, wealth continues to accumulate for a small minority.


The destruction of nature for extraction, industrial agriculture, urbanisation or industry development is also causing severe health crises. Zika, AIDS, SARS and Ebola all originated from animal populations under severe environmental pressures.

Scientific developments in technology and medicine have enriched industries such as pharmaceuticals and agriculture.

Yet, life saving drugs have become out of reach for many who are excluded from the rudimentary infrastructures for survival - basic social infrastructures like a comprehensive, accessible healthcare system and stable, safe housing.

Neoliberal governance - which has pushed austerity measures within Global North countries and structural adjustment and privatisation in the South - have concentrated wealth for the few, while pushing millions into poverty.

With climate breakdown comes the urgent need to reverse this course, and focus instead on building strong infrastructures of social protection and resilience - especially for communities most at risk.

There is a deep connection between climate and wellbeing - for one, climate change increases the likelihood and severity of future pandemics

Guppi Bola, a public health, climate justice, and decolonising economics expert, adds: "As the pandemic has demonstrated, health crises distribute themselves unevenly across the globe by following the patterns of existing structural marginalisation.


"The health gap exists because these outcomes of ill-health are both avoidable and unfair. It is ultimately a result of political choices around investment of public resources, exposure to environmental pollution and other - including climate change linked - hazards, and access to stable decent and green employment with appropriate protective equipment.

"Health outcomes are complicated by biological weathering (the susceptibility of ill health due to ongo- ing trauma) which is slowly being recognised as a driver of health inequalities alongside barriers to accessing vital public health services, clean air and water, nutritious food, and sustainable work consistent with International Labour Organisation convention, human rights, and occupational health and safety standards."

Across the world, the gap between the amount of affordable housing available, and the number of people who need it is increasing.

By 2025, this gap is forecast to affect over a third of the world’s urban population - for 1.6 billion people around the world, this would mean living in unsafe and overcrowded high rises, in informal slums or sleeping rough.

Extreme weather events cause disproportionate losses for vulnerable dwellers and those forced to live in informal settlements where women, young people, LGBTQI+, people who live with disabilities and older people face heightened risks of violence.


One single storm can displace thousands of people, and cause a scale of property destruction that takes decades to recover from. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed 800,000 housing units in New Orleans.

In 2019, Cyclone Idai is estimated to have destroyed 90 percent of Beira, a city of more than half a million people in Mozambique.

Mozambique is the sixth poorest country in the world, and highly indebted - yet its coal and titanium mines and agro-industry has enriched investors around the world.

Meanwhile, the people of Mozambique have suffered as a result of this economic model, facing reduced social security spending as the government seeks to repay its debts - especially in a climate of reduced income from its export commodities.

In this neoliberal policy space, housing and other poverty alleviation efforts are systematically deprioritised over (foreign) investor friendly schemes that have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few.

Social protection

Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert, the Black Lives Matter UK organiser and a University of Warwick PhD candidate, notes: "Storms and pandemics themselves cannot easily be averted.

"But the scale of the destruction wrought, and whether or not an event becomes a disaster or a catastrophe, is based on both the political decisions made in responding to a crisis and the history of decisions - entrenched in ideological priorities in favour of gentrification, foreign direct investment or loans over lifting local people and local solutions - that create the context in which an event takes place. Covid-19 has shown what many of us have known for a long time.

"Economically marginalised people of colour disproportionately exposed to higher levels of air pollution, poor housing conditions, healthcare deprivation or discrimination, and frontline or precarious work will be disproportionately impacted by shocks, whether health, climate or economic.

"This is true in the UK as much as for the billions living in poverty in the Global South. If the pandemic is a portal - as Arundhati Roy suggests, it should be a portal to the kind of world many of us have been working towards for generations, in our housing and land struggles, in our strikes and in our protests."

A globally just Green New Deal must therefore include a vision of affordable, secure and dignified housing - built to protect people from the impacts of climate change that are already underway - in addition to decent work and social protection throughout everyone’s life course.


Social protection includes universal access to health and social care - systems whose existing lack of resilience in times of crisis has been highlighted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Decades of allowing private companies to treat people’s health as a business opportunity while defunding public healthcare infrastructure has created a two-tier global health system.

While some can rely on cutting edge medical technology and expertise, many are left unable to access even a hospital bed. This inequalities wrought by this system will become exacerbated by climate breakdown.

Indeed, there is a deep connection between climate and wellbeing - for one, climate change increases the likelihood and severity of future pandemics. 

The intensification of heatwaves from France to Pakistan disproportionately impacts elderly people and those with pre-existing heart and lung conditions.


Climate change also proliferates vector-borne diseases such as dengue, yellow fever, zika, and malaria, and increases premature air pollution related deaths. Food and water scarcity create health consequences linked to malnutrition. Wildfires impact breathing.

In short, climate change is the number one threat to public health this century. As a result the need for a resilient and universally accessible healthcare infrastructure and services is urgent now more than ever.

A Global Green New Deal needs to nurture a twenty-first century commons in place of an economy based on privatising humanity’s basic needs.

This includes building a society that promotes life-long learning, care, health, art, movement and music as part of overall well-being inspired by Buen Vivir - the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America to work towards less consumption, and encourage cooperation within communities to fairly distribute available resources, rather than permit permanent accumulation by the wealthy.

The alternative to this model of unsustainable growth at the top and scarcity at the bottom, can be one of rich abundance for the many.

These Authors

These Authors

Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial are the curators and editors of Perspectives on a Global Green New Dealwhere this article first appeared.

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